By age of 3 or 4, however, lactase production usually decreases, and most people become "lactase nonpersisters."
"The majority of the world's population, after weaning and gradually over childhood, lose lactose activity," Suchy said. "It's a normal state. Only those people that are largely from northern European descent have retained lactase and have the ability to ingest and process lactose later in life."
But even most "nonpersisters" aren't really intolerant to lactose and could consume more dairy products.
It's first important to distinguish whether symptoms attributed to lactose intolerance -- diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating and flatulence -- result from another, potentially serious gastrointestinal condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome or celiac disease.
But, said Suchy, even "if it is a problem with lactose, there may be strategies to cope with that."
Right now, when lactose intolerance is suspected, "the reflex response oftentimes is to tell the patient to stop taking dairy products completely," Suchy said. "There may be some patients where that has to be done and whatever nutritional deficiencies could be made up with supplements."
But for others, alternative strategies like taking small amounts of milk throughout the day or with meals or including yogurt and hard cheeses, especially low-fat hard cheeses, in the diet might be tolerable.
"This is not an allergic condition where if you take a little bit of milk you get sick. That's quite rare," noted Dr. Marshall A. Wolf, a panel member and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "This is a quantitative condition and most people, even those with malabsorption, can take a certain amount of milk products without any symptoms, and there is some evidence to suggest that if you take milk products on a regular basis, you can build up your tolerance for milk."
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